The Tim Tebow moment and other takeaways from last pre-Iowa GOP debate (VIDEO)

Rick Perry had a memorable line with his Tim Tebow comment, but Thursday's GOP debate – the last before the Iowa caucuses – didn't exactly offer an electrifying finish. Still, a few jabs hit their mark.

Eric Gay/AP
Republican presidential candidates from left, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minn., prepare for last pre-Iowa GOP debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday.

Tim Tebow has arrived. You know you’ve become a cultural force when a presidential candidate wraps himself in your aura and tries to, well, Tebow his way to the Republican nomination.

The only problem for Rick Perry is that an unorthodox style and a lot of praying may not be enough to turn him into a winner. But in the 13th and final GOP debate before the first nominating contest of the season – the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses – at least the Texas governor came out with a memorable line.

“Let me tell you, I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses,” said Governor Perry, relating to the criticism that the Denver Broncos quarterback is “not playing the game right” but manages to win anyway.

Anyone hoping that Thursday night’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa, would feature hail Mary passes and an electrifying finish was probably disappointed. The discussion mostly reworked familiar ground. There were testy moments, but not between the front-runners – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

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Mr. Romney played it safe and didn’t go after Mr. Gingrich or anyone else after the $10,000 bet Romney offered Perry in the last debate unleashed a flood of mockery. Romney is letting his surrogates, TV ads, the other candidates, and debate questioners go after Gingrich on his perceived weaknesses.

Chris Wallace, one of the Fox News moderators, obliged by teeing up questions to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum on Gingrich’s $1.6 million consultancy with controversial mortgage giant Freddie Mac. The result was not Gingrich’s best moment.

Gingrich has stated that he was an adviser to Freddie Mac, not a lobbyist. But Representative Bachmann zinged him on that.

“You don't need to be within the technical definition of being a lobbyist to still be influence-peddling with senior Republicans in Washington, D.C., to get them to do your bidding,” Bachmann said. “And the bidding was to keep this grandiose scam of Freddie Mac going.”

Gingrich asserted that Bachmann had it wrong – that his policy is to break up both Freddie Mac and its sister institution, Fannie Mae. And he repeated his argument that, in effect, because he was already rich he didn’t really need the Freddie Mac money.

“I want to state unequivocally for every person watching tonight, I have never once changed my positions because of any kind of payment, because I – the truth is, I was a national figure who was doing just fine doing a whole variety of things, including writing best-selling books, making speeches,” Gingrich said.

Given the accusations Romney has faced for being an out-of-touch rich man, Gingrich may also not want to flaunt his financial success.

Representative Paul, who is well-organized in Iowa and climbing in polls, also got off a memorable line against Gingrich on the government-financed mortgage giants: “Some people say if it goes to the extreme, it gets to fascism.”

Romney had a less-than-flattering moment in the spotlight, when he was asked to explain flipflops on abortion, gay rights, and guns. Moderator Wallace cited a letter Romney wrote in 1994 to the pro-gay-rights Log Cabin Republicans, in which the then-Senate candidate promised to be a more effective leader in pushing for equal rights for gays and lesbians than the man he hoped to unseat, Sen. Edward Kennedy.

In  Romney’s defense, gay marriage wasn’t on the public radar in 1994. And he insisted he’s been consistent on gay rights.

“I am firmly in support of people not being discriminated against based upon their sexual orientation,” he said. “At the same time, I oppose same-sex marriage. That's been my position from the beginning.”

If Paul scored points in decrying Gingrich’s involvement with Freddie Mac, he walked on riskier ground when he played down the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The isolationist-inclined congressman questioned the assertion that Middle East experts say Iran may be less than a year away from getting a nuclear weapon, and then raised the specter of another Iraq – right as the US has ended its long, controversial engagement there.

“To me the greatest danger is that we will have a president that will overreact, that we will soon bomb Iran,” Paul said.

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